It’s February and that means Black History Month. While some have decried Black History Month as taking place during the shortest month of the year, the celebration has in fact come a long way since its creator, the historian Carter G. Woodson worked with the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History to announce the second week of February as being, in the terminology of its time, ‘Negro History Week.’
Skeptics might wonder about the value of Black History Month, given that African Americans are in some respects in markedly different social, political and educational circumstances compared to those that existed a century ago. During that time, widely available scholarship on African American history has increased in leaps and bounds, on a great many fronts.
With Barack Obama having been a two-time president, and with important civil rights advances in place for half a century or more, is there an important place for a celebration that might well appear in some respects as anachronistic?
In a word, yes.
As a professor whose classes invariably deal with aspects of African American and African Diaspora history, any moments of doubt I might have about the validity of Black History Month are dispelled once classes begin each semester.
I am still shocked and saddened at the level of ignorance among students of important events and personalities that are part of African American history, and consequently, American history. I don’t of course blame my students, and this ignorance is by no means restricted to students of a particular ethnicity or cultural background.
The first time I realized there was a problem was several years ago, when I casually asked my class, what they could share about their knowledge of Paul Robeson, a prominent singer and actor who championed civil rights. No hands went up, and no-one could volunteer anything whatsoever about someone who could reasonably be regarded as one of the most important Americans of the 20th century.
Widespread ignorance of Black American history leads to an insufficient grasp of American history. Similarly, to properly acknowledge and embrace Black American history leads immediately to a more nuanced, thorough and comprehensive understanding of American history.
One cannot understand or fully grasp the history of the United States without an understanding and appreciation of the African American history embedded within it. We make a chronic mistake if we ever think that African American History is of primary relevance only to African American people. African American History is important for all Americans. It is this that simple assertion that emphasizes the continued importance of Black History Month.
It’s the responsibility of all of us – as parents, as teachers, as professors, as people – to do what we can to view history in all its dimensions. A wealth of wonderful juvenile literature about Black history exists, and is freely available, so parents can certainly help in making Black history a normal and familiar aspect of the ways in which children of all ages and ethnicities are introduced to history.
Teachers too, at both grade schools and universities need to ensure that they are offering balanced and inclusive accounts of history, to their pupils and students. Above all, as a society we need to refrain from viewing Black history as an optional add-on, to be fleetingly recognized only one month a year.
If and when I ask my class what they can share about their knowledge of figures such as Marcus Garvey, Paul Robeson, or Shirley Chisolm, and the vast majority of hands shoot up into the air, I might perhaps start to concede that Black History Month might have had its day, or seen more positively, is having widespread or far-reaching effect.
Until such time, there is a self-evident need for Black History Month to continue and expand, alongside concurrent year-round efforts to improve and make more credible the history curricula of our schools. Furthermore, so many setbacks and developments of late mean that we cannot take for granted any of the legislative or societal advances made by African Americans in this nation.
Now more than ever, the country needs to be reminded of the humanity of all of its citizens, particularly those of African origin, who so often find themselves on the receiving end of casual but pronounced victimization.
Eddie Chambers is a professor of art and art history at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Dallas Monring News, Omaha News Herald, Winona Daily News, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, The Citizens Voice, The Bend Bulletin, Circleville Herald, Gulf Today, The Columbia (S.C) State, Houston Chronicle and the McAllen Monitor.
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